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Family Matters

An Unforgettable Birthday

July 1st, 2016

By Krista Menchenton

It was a beautiful spring morning, and my son Jacob’s eighth birthday.

I stayed up late the night before baking his birthday cake, and making his birthday shirt...a tradition that had started on his first birthday.

He woke up that morning excited it was his “special day”, and couldn’t wait to get to school to see all his friends.

The plan was we would pick up balloons and be waiting for him at the end of the day to surprise him and take him out to dinner.

That never happened.

Sometime after lunch around 2 p.m. (to be honest, I never really looked at the time), my mom called and said, “Krista, go outside. It’s awfully smokey.”

My heart sank. After watching the fire burn from my back yard for two days, this was the moment I feared.

I ran to the window, looked outside, and instantly knew we had to get out.

I called my husband and told him to bring the suitcases, then ran into our bedroom and turned on the radio.

When looked out my bedroom window I saw a neighbour loading up their truck while others were looking around wondering what to do; then I heard the radio announce that Abasand was under voluntary evacuation.

It all happened so fast.

Stunned, I called my sons school and was put on hold. I told Troy to go pick him up. FIve minutes later, he returned and said all the kids were evacuated and bussed downtown.

I stopped and thought, could this really be happening?!

Frantically I started to pack. As I thought of things we  needed to grab, I’d yell it out to my husband, “Get the cat in his cage...grab the mortgage papers...go get the photo albums...” all while my three-year-old sat at the table, eating his snack.

The next 20 minutes were a blur.

As he loaded everything up in the vehicle I grabbed the boys’ blankets, pillows and the birthday gifts that were carefully wrapped and hidden in the hallway closet.

As I put the key in the front door, I paused, ran back inside, and grabbed pictures off the wall.

I guess a part of me knew I was never coming back.

As we put the last few items in the vehicle the smoke got thick and ash got heavy. We knew the fire was close. I called my parents who lived one street over and told them they had to leave now, if they didn’t, they would die.

It was the hardest call I ever made.

Fearing they wouldn’t listen, we started to drive towards their house when a woman turned us around and told us the flames were coming. I called again and they said they were in their vehicle.

For our neighbourhood there was no mandatory evacuation, no fire trucks, no police.

There was no time.

Traffic was backed up all over Abasand and we ended up driving down an emergency access trail. We later found out that a guy in a truck busted through the gate because it was locked up.

We headed downtown to pick up Jacob and then headed to the Keyano parking lot to meet up with my parents.

As we pulled in we could see the flames in Beacon Hill. We got out of our vehicles, and in complete shock watched the flames devour Abasand, too. At that moment I knew our house was gone, too.

We realized very quickly that we needed to get out of Fort McMurray, but didn’t know which way to go. All of Beacon Hill was on fire, and we didn’t think it was safe to head south.

We decided to go to Walmart to get some food and water, uncertain where we would end up. When we got there, I opened the back door to see how they boys were doing, and Jacob was in tears, not understanding the magnitude of what was happening.

He asked if we were still going out for supper. I told him, “Not tonight.”

In an attempt to make him feel better, I asked him if he wanted to open his birthday gift...a new Nintendo 3DS. I’ll never forget that moment, as he pulled it out and smiled. Everything behind us was on fire. It was surreal.

Of course in the frenzy of packing, I forgot his games, so my nephew who was staying at my parents’ went into Walmart to buy him some.

We spent the next seven hours in traffic, driving about an hour north.

Just outside of town, the sirens wailing in every direction, my son Benny said, “Mommy, I’m scared. Can we go home now?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him there was no home to back to.

We finally arrived at Albion Sands camp; we were lucky enough to get a couple of rooms and at 3 a.m. we found ourselves sitting around a table in the camp cafeteria singing Happy Birthday to our first born son. I didn’t sleep at all that night.

The next morning we woke up and knew we had to try to head south. The thought of being trapped up north with nowhere to go was terrifying. We were told we could not get through, but with full tanks of gas, we were going to try.

As we drove through town we could see what the fire had destroyed. Unforgiving, with a hunger to devour everything in its path.

While we were amazed to see downtown and Grayling Terrace still standing, nothing short of a miracle, the town was still smouldering and we knew it wasn’t over.  Once we got past Gregoire, it was like we could breathe again.

Exhausted physically and emotionally, we headed to my parents’ cottage in Skeleton Lake.

May 10th, 2016

It had been a week since the fire and it was now my youngest son’s 4th birthday. Again I stayed up the night before making Benny his birthday shirt, just like I had with his big brother.

We finally got confirmation that our house with destroyed along with my parents’ and my brother’s house in Anzac. Now we were in an evacuation donation centre, picking up some basic essentials. NOt much of a birthday for a four-year-old.

As we sat in the food court in Kingsway Mall in Edmonton, I took a picture of him and realized I didn’t post their birthdays on Facebook like I always have. So I wrote a little post and shared some pictures.

We had a cake for him that night and he opened his gifts. I felt like a failure for not giving them the birthdays they deserved, but I was grateful that we all got out alive and I was proud at how they were handling the situation. Then the most amazing thing happened.

An old neighbour from Fort McMurray, Connie Nye, sent me a Facebook message. Thinking about it now, I could cry. She wanted to throw my boys a birthday party. She said they deserved it, and she was going to make it happen.

I was shocked. Although we had kept in touch on Facebook, I hadn’t see her in more than 20 years. After a week of sadness, loss and trying to stay strong, I became overwhelmed with gratitude.

The next couple of days I received messages like this: What themes would they like to have? What kind of food do they eat? What DS Games do they like? Do they have bikes? It was unbelieveable.

When I asked her what we could do, she replied, “Nothing. Invite your friends, show up, relax, visit, and have fun.”

That little busy bee spent the next four days putting together an over the top birthday party boys will surely never forget.

We arrived at her house that Saturday to a birthday party extravaganza. She went all out, and so did her community. Businesses like Sobeys and Dairy Queen donated balloons, food, and birthday cakes. Jumpy Things in Sherwood Park donated a bouncy castle and EB Games donated DS games. Deston Ash of Twisted Spidey donated his time as Spider Man, and stayed the whole time playing with the kids and signing autographs.

When it came to gifts, it was just like Christmas. My high school friends, Lana and Katy showed up with generous gifts, and Lana’s brother, Wesley, gave Benny a new Nintendo 2DS and games because “little boys need their games!” Connie’s sister, Belinda, and her husband, Ed game them every Cards dinky car you can imagine. For two boys that had collected well over a thousand dinky cars, this was all like hitting the jackpot.

Then there was the pile of presents that friends had dropped off for the boys. As if that wasn’t enough, Connie, her husband Scott, their two girls Tori and Lexi, along with some friends, got together and bought the boys two new bikes.

It was the ultimate act of kindness: a community coming together for two little boys.

For a brief moment they forgot what they had been through and all they had lost. For that I”ll be eternally grateful.

I never told my boys where we were going that day. Not because I wanted to keep it a surprise, but because I wanted them to look into the faces of strangers and understand that generosity and kindness can heal. I want them to keep that feeling with them forever.

It’s going to be a long road for us, full of uncertainties and hard decisions. Our neighbourhood in Abasand was hit hard; our area was completely flattened.

But we are strong, we will rebuild.

In the middle of sadness there can always be joy, and in the middle of despair there can always be hope.

Sometimes you have to go looking for it, and sometimes it comes looking for you.

Tags: kids

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